Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity | By Katherine Boo | Random House | 256 pages | $27
Long known as one of America’s most astute chroniclers of domestic poverty, New Yorker writer Katherine Boo chose to report her first book elsewhere: in Annawadi, a slum at the edge of Mumbai’s international airport. This wasn’t the most obvious choice. Though Boo’s husband is Indian, her own poor health, lack of language skills, and outsider status threatened to make such a reporting project prohibitively difficult. Eventually, though, she concluded that she had little to lose and much to gain from heading to a place that many people—Indians and non-Indians alike—would rather avoid.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a book that stands with the best long-form immersion reporting, confirms that she made the right decision. Although the book raises vital questions about inequality, it is not a treatise; at its richest, it offers the most emotionally resonant quality of contemporary fiction—closeness of point of view—and pairs it with investigative reporting so dense that sometimes it takes her only a sentence to refute the cant, half-truths, and hypocrisy that the powerful offer when talking about and dealing with the poor.
In Boo’s sensitive hands, Annawadi, a place named after the Tamil word for “older brother,” is neither exotic nor poverty porn. Instead, it feels close, familiar, and peopled with rounded characters. The care with which the slumdwellers are rendered makes the book a deeply humane chronicle of a set of varied minds wearied by instability, and inventing ways through it.
The book begins in medias res with Abdul Husain, a teenage garbage-sorter, fleeing a false story that threatens his whole life and livelihood. Abdul, his father, and his sister stand accused (wrongly, we are swiftly given to understand) of setting their neighbor Fatima, a.k.a. the One Leg, on fire. The boy—his family’s main breadwinner—finds himself “mule-brained with panic” and he flees to a storeroom of trash he hopes will hide him from a crime he did not commit.
The teenager has lived a life of small ambitions. While others in Annawadi “now spoke of better lives casually, as if fortune were a cousin arriving on Sunday, as if the future would look nothing like the past,” Abdul has aspired only to be married to a good wife who won’t mind the smell of his profession. “Like most people in the slum, and in the world, for that matter, he believed his own dreams properly aligned to his capacities,” Boo writes. Even this wish now seems impossible. Abdul ultimately surrenders to the law, hoping to spare his ailing father the ordeal; instead, all three accused Husains begin a journey through the justice system.
Throughout the book, Boo meticulously bridges chasms between fact and official records. (In an author’s note, she says that she used India’s Right to Information Act to access most of the 3,000-plus public records she checked.) She knows, for example, which police constable raped a homeless flower seller; and the amount an aspiring slum boss says she needs to get the police to stop beating Abdul’s father, who—along with his son—spends time in an off-the-books prison cell. The parade of fabrications are woven so consistently into the narrative that one gets a sense of how regularly Annawadians see and suffer from such corruptions of the truth.
Boo resists facile analysis, letting the narrative speak for itself. When she does offer comment or context, it’s restrained and nuanced. We have the space to see the thinking behind any action. During the Husains’ legal troubles, for instance, the family declines several opportunities to address their problems extrajudicially. But it’s not just a matter of moral rectitude; sometimes, Boo reveals, they’re acting out of practical concern—they’re not sure the people asking for bribes have the power to help them.
In a 2009 New Yorker piece, Boo very subtly compared the poverty of the airport slums with the world of Slumdog Millionaire, a film in which a poor Indian boy uses lessons learned from his childhood to win big on a game show. Here, as in that article, Boo demonstrates that the slumdwellers’ victories are quieter. I nearly cheered aloud when I read of Abdul’s father defying a bribe-seeking official. He knows that she is lying about how the legal process works—because he has been reading Urdu newspapers. (Go, journalism!) Still, the lessons the Annawadians learn aren’t neatly instructive, and their stories never quite resolve.